Talking to Republicans
There are two things that pretty consistently happen. The first is the story of the Welfare Cheat. The story is always roughly the same. They knew a person, a person they often identify as a friend. This person was receiving a full meal deal, housing, food, health insurance, day care, or whatever suite of support happens to strike the Republican as important. At the same time, the intrepid Republican was holding down a job, or two jobs, or three jobs, and struggling to make ends meet. But here they are, now, and they did it all themselves. And, you know, this isn't fair and something must be done. The thing that strikes me about these stories is that the Welfare Cheat appears only as a suite of benefits, and if they have a character trait, it is universally that of laziness. Now, I don't know. I haven't done a careful study of welfare. It seems extremely likely that there are people who are "abusing the system." But these stories always elide the context. They are missing the, you know, story part of the story. Why are these people in these situations? What do they think about their lives? What other options have they tried? How long have they been getting these benefits? Where did they come from, and where are they going? Do they have goals, even terribly mundane ones like visiting their grandmother in Wisconsin? It's not that I think that the Welfare Cheat is not a real person, but rather the Republican seems to not think of the Welfare Cheat as a real person. There's no way of knowing, from what they tell me, if this person has an invisible disability, a mental disorder, had a sudden case of hard luck, or what. They exist in space, eating benefits and excreting parables.
It makes me wonder, when I talk about being on food stamps, or CETA, or talk about others I know who have benefited from various social programs, if I too elide the details. Do I fail to contextualize and personalize the information? Do I, too, tell parables of the happy little tax payer that could? I hope that I don't, but when I talk about myself, I suspect I assume much of the context. I'm hoping that the Republican will look at me and process that I am a real human, and assume that the reason I ended up on Food Stamps was because of knowable, complicated, human reasons. I tend to stress that I got better. But am I just presenting myself as a parable? Am I, too, failing in the same ways? Are they assuming that I will understand a complicated context and so not including it? I don't really know.
The other thing that always happens is this. I ask what I think is the core question: if we don't help these people, what happens next? The answer I get most often is a variation on, "I shouldn't have to pay for their choices." Many years ago on Usenet I got into an argument with someone who didn't approve of Welfare payments to teen-aged unmarried mothers. I pointed out that whether or not you approved of how the young woman managed to get herself pregnant, once she had done so, there was a child. A child which she was completely unable to support. A child which we had the choice of helping take care of, now, or in twenty years, incarcerating at considerable cost. And the only answer he would give me was, "She shouldn't have gotten pregnant." Yes, well, even if I grant that, she is. So, what now? Where is our way forward? Even if you have some sort of bizarre, draconian plan for preventing young women from ever having sex of which you don't approve of in the future, right here and now, we have an infant. A child who will grow up, and whose mother is completely incapable of taking care of it without significant support from someone. And the answer? "She shouldn't have gotten pregnant."
Over and over again, I ask these people to look at the consequences of what they are saying. The current very popular bug-a-boo is the woman who has a baby a year and is on Welfare. I ask them to consider the possible problems of the State actually having a say in who gets to have babies. Or the State being allowed to declare someone an unfit parent by virtue of poverty. They won't go there. They say, "But I shouldn't have to pay." Never mind the mother, I say, what about these eight or twelve or 'leventy hundred kids. Does it make sense to make it impossible for them to eat and have a safe place to sleep, and be educated? If we accept that the mother is a complete shit, utterly hopeless, and will never be able to take care of the kids on her own, does that mean that we should also write off these innocent children? "But she's abusing the system," they respond.
"Oh, we need to do drug tests for Welfare," they tell me. "Ok, then," I answer. "What happens when a person fails. Are you actually prepared to let that person starve in the street?" They won't usually say yes, though I often think that is what they are thinking. This morning, my co-worker said, "They need to think about how important it is to them to stay alive."
Which makes me, I don't know, kind of despair fractally. When you're really poor, when you have had no opportunities, when you have had things never, ever work out, you lose the ability to think long term. Possibly you were never very good at it in the first place, which is why you ended up here, anyway. At the point where you have no particular expectation that the future will be better than the past, you stop worrying about survival on a long-term basis. Faced with a choice between a present pleasure and the possibility of something better down the road, you choose the present pleasure because your experience with life so far has convinced you that the possibility of better is in fact nothing more than a mirage, a vapor dream in the heat. When I was at the end of myself, impoverished and without food, I didn't really worry about surviving. I was too busy actually doing that to worry about it. I had no ability to plan. I had neither prospects nor expectations. The world was as it was, and the idea that it could be different was too big an idea to fit in my reduced circumstances.
People talk a lot about making Welfare so unpleasant that people will want to get off it. I don't think it usually works that way. I think that the more horrible you make it, the more grinding, the more scary, the more doors end up being shut. The less the people are able to think ahead, able to imagine a future that isn't as horrible as the past, the less likely people are going to be able to make good choices. People do not learn to make responsible choices by being put in a position where they have no choices to make. One of the wonderful things about Food Stamps, as opposed to government issued cheese and milk, is that the recipient gets to make choices. Gets to decide what to eat, how to spend that money. Some people make choices I wouldn't make. Sometimes those choices which look so terrible from the outside turn out to be in support of complex situations not easily discernible from the contents of their grocery carts. And sometimes, they are genuinely bad choices. But, you know, practice helps. People learn. And they learn best when they have incentives, but the stakes are not so high that their mind turns off in sheer self-defense.
In the end, I don't know why I try to talk to Republicans. It really doesn't feel like there's any communication going on. It is possible that I am completely missing what they are trying to tell me. But I keep on hearing it as, "You should have died in a gutter." I suspect they mean something at least slightly different. But, you know, maybe not.